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Born to be Wild at the End of Life

Shutterstock / Lukas Gojda

This is Terminal exists to open conversations around death and dying. In this edition, a hospice volunteer recounts one very special patient.

“Adrian” was a rocker from way back, born to be wild. A slim, handsome, mustachioed man around 60 years old, often wearing a Harley Davidson t-shirt, he rocked out as best he could from his hospice bed. Jimi Hendrix, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Steppenwolf often electrified his peaceful, sunny room in San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project’s Guest House. Although mostly bed-ridden and bombarded with physical and emotional pain, Adrian would visibly be transported into rock-n-roll ecstasy when listening to his favorite bands on his iPod.  The meaningful music of his life became the soundtrack of his approaching death.  Raw and tender, he was beautifully real in his final weeks of life – rocking out, frequently weeping and openly cursing the cancer that was taking his life. In my weekly shift as a volunteer caregiver at the Guest House, I spent many hours sitting with this charming rocker as he struggled to come to grips with dying. 

When I first met Adrian soon after his arrival at the Guest House, I could see fear in his eyes. I soon discovered that his face was always an open book, clearly conveying his experience in the moment.  Sitting at his bedside that first time, his anxiety bordered on panic and caused him to reach out to impulsively clutch my arm multiple times. He quickly let go out of what seemed like gentlemanly respect, apology in his eyes. His vulnerability and unmasked humanity instantly awakened deep care in my heart, and I held his hand and softly stroked his arm as I sat close. Physical contact soothed him and he liked conversation, even though he slipped in and out of coherence. In his soft, raspy voice, he told me of his love of motorcycles and music, and of a special time in Hawaii decades ago.  “Oh man those beaches,” he said staring longingly at a photograph of a tropical beach affixed to his wall, “Let’s go!” And then he fell asleep.

The following weeks saw Adrian less and less lucid, yet still present and emotionally raw. Tears would spontaneously run down his face as he talked about his lifelong buddies and parties they’d had, motorcycles he’d ridden and music he’d played – his open sorrow for what was lost a wholesome and moving process to witness. He even cried for Jimi Hendrix’s early death, mourning the music that might have been. Tears sometimes ran down my face as well, feeling my own losses and all the losses of the world reflected in his. We grieved together.

Once, he condemned his weeping, calling himself a big baby. This was the most painful thing for me to witness. Grief, fear, pain – these are all natural elements in the process of letting go of life, yet this self-condemnation, a sadly common cultural conditioning, adds suffering to grief and pain. I placed my hand on his and said I understood that crying feels very vulnerable and that he had a great deal to grieve and crying is a natural way to express that grief. I told him that resisting or trying to push away feeling only makes it stronger, so he might as well feel and express what’s there. He reached out and patted my head, his face contorted with tenderness, sorrow and relief, and wept some more.

During my final visit with Adrian, he was more delusional. He could follow a simple, short conversation; sometimes he believed himself to be at the Dallas airport waiting to catch a plane, to where he wasn’t sure. Although he repeatedly tried to get out of bed to board his plane, he was too weak to do more than sit up briefly and I made sure he didn’t hurt himself in his efforts. He gazed at me with gentle puzzlement, his warm brown eyes heavy and unfocused, concerned about his flight. “Is it time? Should we get on the plane now?” he asked. “What should we do? I don’t know what to do.” I assured him that there was nothing we needed to do, that we were already in exactly the right place. Relieved, he relaxed back into his pillows and then started to laugh. 

“This is nuts,” he chuckled. “This damn cancer.  I don’t know what to do,” and laughed harder. His laughter had a soft surrender in it that was infectious. I laughed with him and said, “I don’t know what to do either!” Which was true. What can one do about death? We laughed and laughed at the absurdity of it all, laughed at the looming unknown, both repeating over and over “I don’t know what to do! There isn’t anything to do!” This shared truth and deep surrender to not knowing was at once painful and powerfully beautiful, a bittersweet comfort for both of us to acknowledge and accept together. There was freedom in this letting go.

After the cathartic hilarity of this radical acceptance faded, we listened to more music. “Born to Be Wild” came on and his illness-ravaged face lit up like a saint’s in a religious painting. He strained to sing along in his shaky voice, his body tensing and arching upward ecstatically, taken by the music. His rock-n-roll rapture was astonishing to witness. His eyes rolled back in his head, his mouth open, his heart reaching toward the sky; I wondered if he would die right then of joy and wildness. Goose bumps broke out on my arms as I felt his exaltation in the music, visions of motorcycle adventures in the flaring light of freedom filled my mind. I’ll never hear that song again without thinking of that transcendent moment with Adrian. When the last notes faded, he lay still, drifting blissfully in the afterglow of exploding into space. Then the Doors’ “This is the End” came on and he quietly asked me to turn it off.

Adrian died peacefully with family and friends in attendance three days later.  It was a true blessing to share such rich and vulnerable moments with this tender wild one. Rock on, Adrian.

Learn more about how Zen Hospice Project is helping to change the experience of dying.


Were you moved by this story? Read more from This is Terminal.

This is Terminal: Born to be Wild at the End of Life

This is Terminal: Dying Surrounded by Laughter and Song

This is Terminal: A Hospice Social Worker on Grief and Empathy